Erika Gisela Abad Merced

[CREATIVE NONFICTION] Guarding Gray Sweatshirts

Any time of day. Long sleeves leaking over hands. Gray sweatshirts’ warmth hugs when arms are absent, surrounds shoulders up to the neck so that cold air and breezes ask permission to enter. My favorite kind of sweatshirts, with hoods not worn, less so now because dark skin and dark streets have rules. Rules that don’t matter when the sweatshirts are indoors; rules that don’t matter on fall or summer or spring afternoons amidst backyard greens, donated lot trees, and urban garden berries. Rules that then and there don’t have to be followed. Rules that remind that love needs not regulations but direction, purpose in the way hooded sweatshirt sleeves cup over hands, collecting gray, brown and black from all they touch in an effort to keep what they hold warm, safe, active yet protected. I still remember her face over the first one, the one I never wore, the one whose weight still aches, especially because of all those sleeves collect, she slips out and my hands, my fingers are still reaching


under the pile of leaves,

behind the compost bin, on the bench

collecting cold after hours bent over garden beds.

closer to home, dirty boots come off and bear feet

settle into the ache of hours turning beds.

and laying down on one

with dirt encrusted hands over her heart,

wrapped in the gray sweatshirt,

she’s home.


However protected or washed, somehow each gray sweatshirt stains after every washing. The one from the Catholic Worker whose paint blobs brumble about older owners.  The one, the University of Denver one, from the other gay cousin. The cousin who buys it Christmas afternoon, when we’re both laughing at west coast whiteness against our queer brownness, aching, aching for Chicago color. That one, that gray one bought when we can both laugh and talk and share secrets no one else knows stains within minutes of walking out dry, hot and ready. Oil or dirt pending on whether worn while cooking before work or outside pulling weeds on the only days off possible. The reminder of why and what gets lost until attempting, until sitting down trying to listen and speak and engage all at once. The color stops collecting on sleeves, the heart still shadowed from oil or dirt or from the memory of what (who) was there. The absence of what it means to not say it, speak it, of all the secrets between trying to reach, touch, and oops, in trying to touch without the sweatshirt, it gets left, then lost. Still strange and awkward about connecting she and I are, despite who we have in common, despite the opposite side of scars. I read it in the way she sees color and twinges, not in the way that shoots guns but in the way, in the way that doesn’t believe that touch could be possible across the color line.  Within a day, I remember it, its absence aching in the garden. I call within weeks, my patience confused for forgetting, space replaced with for granted taking. To say taking for granted loses the taking, the taking of more than what amidst blues and reds and yellows should, in all its blah, be found. Lost after weeks of trusting that, when found I’d get a call. A call that never comes.  Like Nik’s words when we pass, like forgiveness across time. Like the fear, the fear of those gray eyes once blue and green, and I use the other one, the one with stains and scars, not mine. What sweatshirts mean, gray stained and gardened, returns. Words in my head. Words about forgetting, about meaning, about giving.


The one I now wear, my brother requested as a reminder of where he was from, of where he could return whenever he chose. On his last visit, along with his son’s socks, his daughter’s palm-sized ponies, he left Chicago blue emblazened over gray stranded under and behind the life my mom and I cramp in a two-bedroom condo. In the midst of packing, storing toys tinier than my pinky, I ask would my blonde niece and tender-hearted nephew grow past needing toys by the time they would walk back in, insisting on meaning and connection and a history the south doesn’t give them? Pictures of sleeping and dreaming travel across the interwebs, calls to remember, to gift all of them, equally. And lying here, lying here taking pictures of what was once his, I remember other pictures, I remember the want of other gifts


Laying on the shaggy carpet,

smiles for days.

sitting with words

when looking into the ocean of eyes across

miles that felt like inches

that moved like seconds like years between us


Maybe that’s why I never left his sweatshirt there, there between the north and the south but never near west, there where it felt almost like love again. She asked like she knew what sweatshirt could mean but I left shoes instead. Shoes that never returned. Shoes too tight to replace. Shoes too dark to wander for.  Shoes that could only take me. Shoes that only the sweatshirt could ever make sure could be possible.  The sweatshirt I never kept lingers. Lingers in ways that seduce yet stop returning.


That gray sweatshirt understands the stories no one else wants to hear. That no one else appreciates gave my life purpose or meaning. The stories from that gray sweatshirt are mine, are the stories I haven’t dared to live yet. Because in living them with the sweatshirt I saw on those shaggy carpets, in those garden beds, I never wore that sweatshirt. I never stained it. An ancient way of knowing, a knowledge beyond time, leaks into that I remember amidst all this other forgetting.


When I work in the garden, gloveless, negotiating the wind with the heat produced by the hours spent outside, the hooded pocket protects the bare necessities of keys and wallets while holding up jeans too worn to stand on their own, its thickness holds off dirt and bugs too eager to eat me.


In every conversation, home. Home in ways that prayer with dirt under fingernails and wooden pews under knees still stain. Stained sleeve cuffs covering until exposed hands find warmth in what they touch, in what they do. For as much as I wore those hands, as those hands wore me, kneeling in front of a cross or huddled on bridges we couldn’t cross, hands kept at bay what hearts were needing. Gray sweatshirt sparks an honesty. Honesty for so many of us who wait to believe that the way we love could give life; could give life to more than a revolution. Color calls under the surface, color with different rules, an orange hat that smiles against the laughter of children, the laughter of children who forget the rules that tell them, that tell us we are nothing.


So, when my brother lays over in Chicago, wanting tastes and sounds the south can never give, I’ll wash the sweatshirt, place it in a plastic bag, wrap it around the pizza puff, the Puerto Rican pastel, so he can keep what’s his. So I can cherish what’s mine.


Until then, or until the garden beckons, I’ll keep it, over my hands, being sure not to stain the heart.

Erika Gisela Abad Merced is a Queer Latina poet born and raised in Chicago. She has contributed to blogs such as Mujeres Talk, The Feminist Wire, Black Girl Dangerous, IDK Magazine & Latino Rebels. Her poetry has been published in such journals as Dialogo, Mujeres de Maiz as well as online zines like La Respuesta and Crab Fat Magazine. You can follow her @lionwanderer531. Read her blog:

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